First Among Equals?


The weekly magazine The Economist attempts to refute the idea that Germany dominates the Union by setting up a false proposition and demolishing it rather than dealing with the concerns of actual

We look out for pro-EU arguments and for contradictions of anti-EU arguments. Usually the case is weak enough for us to counter it (we haven’t yet met an exception). This is true of last week’s Charlemagne article in The Economist (TE—13/07/2019).

The defence of the EU project opens by setting up a straw man*, outlining the evidence in favour and then contradicting it. Because the anti-argument is made of straw the ‘evidence’ can readily be shown to fail. In this post we will outline and dismantle the main points. In a related post, Germany Above All, we cite other relevant sources.

Contrary to popular belief, Germany does not in fact run the EU

We have not seen any claim that Germany runs the EU, so arguments against are pointless. However, we do make the case that Germany dominates the EU in its own interest (of course, how could it be otherwise?) and this is not to the benefit of all other members. [1] Charlemagne wants to create an apparent ambiguity where there is none, between running the EU (which implies some sort of mandate to do so) and dominating it (which implies a lack of authority to do so). Thus they fail to address the real issue. By blurring the distinction the author wants us to believe that neither is true, thus all is well with the EU.

The ‘evidence’ that TE cites in favour of their straw man includes: Mercedes cars with German plates “swooshing up and down” the streets of Brussels; the “full might of the German political and diplomatic network” working to get Ursula von der Leyen confirmed as European Commission President; Angela Merkel’s long supremacy in the bloc; Germans holding the presidency of various EU institutions; Germans being the secretaries-general of the European Parliament and the Commission; and Martin Selmayr [2] winning German support to get his boss, Jean-Claude Juncker, the job of current Commission President.

Germany dominantTE then implies that those who make such claims (some of which may be true and, if so, may signify that Germany is dominant rather than running the show) are critics of Germany who believe that Germany is pre-eminent in the EU (again there is subtle slippage here, from running the EU to being pre-eminent in it; the difference matters and discredits TE’s case). Few would argue that Germany nakedly runs the EU, but many would agree that Germany is pre-eminent; hence our straw-man claim that TE is ‘refuting’ an argument that its critics don’t make while failing to refute the claim that they do make. Critics they refer to include Donald Trump, “Southerners” (i.e. Southern Europeans), British politicians, and European governments that “shape their strategies around” the assumption that Germany is increasingly dominant. The article does not explain how or why “European governments” do this (and provides no evidence to support the claim) nor how being pre-eminent would imply that Germany does “run the EU”, its power is more subtle.

Then comes the knock-down: “…because Germany does not in fact have Europe stitched up.” The author doesn’t want to touch the (different) issue of dominance, though it draws on this alternative to provide evidence for its straw case, which ‘evidence’ in fact supports the more realistic claim.

Germany not dominant‘Proof’ is then offered to counter the supposed claim that Germany is in charge: for example, more non-German citizens work for the Parliament and Commission than do Germans; the Germans in Brussels have various views and “do not take orders from Berlin” (no counter-examples are given); it was Macron who proposed Ursula von der Leyen as Commission President, and some parliamentary Germans are opposed to her appointment; “Germany does not always get its way on policy” (an argument against running the show but not against dominating it); on economic policy France and Italy are sometimes opposed to German preferences; on some other matters, “the commission has defied Berlin’s preference” (‘defied’ seems to imply that Germany is dominant); some of the new Eurocrats are “closer to Paris than Berlin” (once again without evidence, but would that, if true, be better for the rest of us?).

Such arguments may counter the unsubstantiated claim that Germany governs the EU but do not touch (or perhaps do support) the ‘Germany first‘ proposition. For example, the European Central Bank (ECB) will not force Germany to agree to something it feels it cannot accept, unlike Greece as a prime, but not unique example. Germany is caught between its anti-inflation-and-loose-money culture and the consequences of eurozone collapse, both of which will fall heavily on its shoulders. It is also aware of its past and the problem of looking too dominant, therefore it is happy for others to take some nominal power roles. But even in Whitehall civil servants ask themselves whether Berlin will like a proposal and change things to ensure it gets accepted. The idea of a French Europe is even more terrifying of course and the author implicitly acknowledges this with a description of executive and centralised power. Yes, Germany is in many respects conflicted but most people know it will not bend if that will damage its interests, unlike the UK has had to, and others also.

Macron-MerkelA better claim could be made that Germany and France dominate the Union, thus diluting the supposed preponderance of Germany, but there is evidence that the two have significant disagreements, as well as important cultural differences, that make such a pact wobbly. [3], [4] Both difference and dominance are exhibited when the EU shrugs off German surpluses and French deficits each year, while routinely attacking Italy.

The TE article can be read as another apology for the EU by a firm supporter which does not want to believe that the project is unsound, as it would be if they had to accept that one member state dominates the rest. But their case is trashed by the use of a straw man, which makes the argument slick but ineffective against a different one that raises more realistic concerns; by concentrating their argument on the ‘fake’ claim they fail to squash the real one. Indeed some of the arguments directed against the straw man seem to support the case that they wish to avoid: for example, Germany is “big enough that others feel daunted and seek to contain it.” Here “big” does not mean physical size, since France and Spain are larger geographically (though with smaller populations), but does imply supremacy. So, for example, “Central Europeans banded together during the migration crisis… to block what they saw as a heavy-handed German preference for open borders.” TE takes this as an argument against their straw man, missing the point that they have provided an argument in support of the more realistic claim—that Germany dominates the Union.

Germany disengagedThe author then uses the claim (surely true) that there are internal differences among German politicians as implying that this shows that Germany neither runs nor dominates the EU, although the fact is irrelevant to both claims. As is the claim that Germany is “insufficiently engaged with European matters” to create a German Europe.

The case is rounded off with slick ‘gotcha’: “a President von der Leyen might produce not a more German Europe but a more European Germany.”

But why does this question of Germany’s weight in the EU matter? It matters because the EU is a ‘union’, not a club, a council or a commonwealth:

Article 4 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU, or the Lisbon Treaty) [5] states the following:

2. The Union shall respect the equality of Member States before the Treaties

This is difficult to achieve in practice because the senior representatives of the member states participate to represent their own nations interests and, while they are supposed technically to abide by their obligations under the TEU, in practice they are elected to further the interests of their constituents and their country as a whole. The necessary balance between theory and practice is daunting, and may be impossible at the federal level where leaders are not directly elected by the people, or even indirectly elected in the case of the most recent leaders, who have been selected by institutions other than the European Parliament. A more cooperative and less mandatory form of ‘union’ would better suit the Continent’s diverse peoples, cultures and economies

Article 9 goes further:

In all its activities, the Union shall observe the principle of the equality of its citizens

And Article 10 further still:

1. The functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy.

In practice some citizens, and their countries, are more equal than others.

(We have covered the disparity between EU theory and practice in many of our posts, some of which are collected into themes: [6], [7], [8] among others.)

UK socksWe wonder if the UK is sour because it hasn’t been allowed to turn Germany’s duopoly with France into a triumvirate and perhaps UK leaders (or some of them) support Brexit for this reason. And, if this is true, we wonder why senior Remainers (there are many) do not take this view but see benefits for the UK in its present membership.

*A straw man is a form of argument and an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent.

[1] Germany calling the shots

[2] Revealing Appointment

[3] France, Germany & EU

[4] France and Germany: Leading but Where?


[6] Themes-12: Evidence

[7] Themes-11: Disdain & Contempt

[8] Themes-10: Breaking EU Rules


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